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A Seldom Told Spelling Bee Tale: In Black and White

Jamie Stiehm on

So you heard about Zaila Avant-garde winning the National Spelling Bee -- the first Black girl to do so at the Scripps event. The truly avant-garde girl, 14, caused a sensation.

But have you heard of Marie Bolden winning the very first National Spelling Bee in 1908? The dignified Black girl from Cleveland caused a stir in America. The news traveled to African tribes.

Zaila and Marie hold the same place in American history: advancement through spelling. There's nothing more American than a spelling bee. All have "a fair and even chance," as my great-grandfather put it.

Out on the prairie, spelling bees were good fun. In cities, they helped to Americanize English. I love them, an inherited trait.

Five hundred school children landed in Cleveland in summer to compete, representing 34 cities like Boston, Buffalo and New Orleans. They went boating on Lake Erie, as pictured in The Plain Dealer. Civic pride ran high.

City teams were invited by my great-grandfather, Warren E. Hicks, to "bee" the stars at the Hippodrome's grand opening.

 

It was a wonderful way to show off Cleveland, the fifth largest city in the U.S., with its thriving immigrant enclaves from Germany, Poland and Russia.

Hicks was the assistant superintendent of schools. A jaunty man in his 40s, he loved putting on a big showcase for public schools. He was a storyteller in speeches, and I have a recording of him telling this tale.

But a problem rocked Cleveland. New Orleans teachers spied a "colored girl" on the host team, Marie. They threatened to boycott the Bee. They were favored to win, the Southern girls and one boy.

Jim Crow was alive and kicking in 1908. Lynchings were rising. Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case which struck down public school segregation, was decades down the line.

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